NJ residents face FEMA deadline

Recovery organizations push to register all residents affected by flooding.

BY HEATHER MOYER | PATERSON, N.J. | June 22, 2007


Tzu Chi volunteers clean up a flood-damaged backyard.
Credit: Jackson Chen/Tzu Chi Foundation

Tzu Chi volunteers clean up a flooded home.
Credit: Jackson Chen/Tzu Chi Foundation

With a Monday deadline looming, disaster recovery organizations in New Jersey are scrambling to get everyone affected by severe flooding in April registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"Everyone is frantically trying to get information out to people so they don't miss this deadline," said Rita Kelly, disaster response director for Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Paterson.

More than 15,000 people in 12 federally declared disaster counties in New Jersey have already registered with FEMA. Kelly's organization sent people door-to-door in hard-hit neighborhoods to give residents information about how to register with FEMA. She said the registration process can be confusing and overwhelming for some, but that recovery organizations can walk people through it and help them appeal to FEMA if they are rejected.

"FEMA sometimes asks people to be more specific about things and people may not know how to do that," Kelly said. "We can help."

Residents who dealt with FEMA in previous floods and did not receive any assistance are convinced the situation will be the same this time, she said.

So far, only 1,600 loan applications have been submitted to the Small Business Administration from 13,000 loan packets sent out, Kelly said.

The SBA offers low-interest disaster recovery loans that can be used for home repairs and replacing lost belongings. Kelly said many people see the word "loan" and immediately react negatively, when in actuality applying for the loan can open them up to other disaster recovery funds.

FEMA said completing the SBA application "will ensure that individuals will be considered for other types of disaster assistance after SBA makes a decision on the loan request."

Catholic Charities has 60 flood clients and Kelly said she expected that number to increase.

"I was on one of the affected streets this week and there was stuff everywhere that had been thrown out of the houses," she said. "They're still trying to clean up. I have people coming into my office now because their utilities are being shut off and they can't afford their rent. Many already lived on the edge in the first place and this flood pushed them over that edge."

Catholic Charities was offering some direct financial assistance for residents ineligible for FEMA funding, including gift cards for various stores, payments for utility bills and securing furniture as people move into new housing. Some local companies were also donating items for the clients. The assistance from her organization only goes so far, Kelly said, especially if people were not trying FEMA first.

"If people miss the deadline, this will financially impact all the social service agencies in the area," she said. "If we agencies cannot assist them financially, then everyone will all be looking for the same help."

She said for residents who were displaced from their homes for only one week and not able to get to their jobs, "that's a huge hardship for many and some will not be able to recoup their losses."

Volunteers contributed to the recovery early on, cleaning out flooded homes and moving soggy furniture. Paterson Catholic Charities received help from the Tzu Chi Foundation, as did organizations in Essex, Bergen, Camden, Somerset, Union and Hudson counties. In Paterson alone, Tzu Chi volunteers cleaned out 25 homes.

"We finished a total of 56 houses and are now working with our 57th client," said Jackson Chen, a senior volunteer with Tzu Chi. "We had more than 250 volunteers participating in these cleaning jobs over a monthlong period."

With cleanup mostly done, long-term recovery committees were focusing on just that - the long-term.

The New Jersey Interfaith Partnership for Disaster Recovery (NJIPDR) was hosting the unmet needs roundtables for Somerset, Bergen and Passaic counties and supplying one caseworker to the Somerset Area Disaster Recovery Committee. NJIPDR director Myles Varley said his organization's experience was what the committees value in getting their counties repaired and rebuilt.

"We're more organized and have worked in other counties on other disasters," Varley said. "We've also offered case management trainings."

The organization has experience with national faith-based disaster relief organizations as well as with their local denominational counterparts and offices. Varley has funding commitments from many of them to assist in the long-term recovery and he continues to seek out more.

Both Varley and Kelly said the best way to help affected residents was to donate money to organizations involved in recovery efforts.

"People can send donations to us and designate them for one particular county if they like," Varley said.

In Bound Brook, a particularly hard-hit city in Somerset County, there are numerous residents with limited recovery resources. Nancy Adams, chairman of the Somerset Area Disaster Recovery Committee (SADRC), said neighborhoods most impacted were similar to those in Paterson with many residents living on the edge.

"There are a lot of really tough situations," said Adams, a member of Bound Brook Presbyterian Church. "We're dealing with people who were victims of Hurricane Floyd (in 1999) and who received FEMA help then. But then because of dire financial situations they let their HUD insurance lapse. That means they are completely incapable of receiving any federal funding now and it means they're vulnerable to losing their homes and their ability to function at all."

Many are unable to pay their bills, she said, while others are recent immigrants who are coping with language barriers and other challenges.

"These are families who may not have any local friends or family and very little resources," Adams said.

SADRC had two local clergy people translate informational fliers into Spanish and Polish.

As in Paterson, many residents have not come forward for help, Adams said. Volunteers were in the neighborhoods to distribute information.

"I wish we could somehow reach everyone who needs help and could qualify for FEMA," she said.

The Rev. Lou Kilgore, pastor of Bound Brook Presbyterian Church, said many affected residents he has spoken with have not touched their homes since the floods. He said he has seen depression and despondency in people because they are unsure of where to start in the recovery.

"You talk to them and they don't have any big motivation to do anything," Kilgore said. "They worry the flood will come again, and really, there's no guarantee against that. It's a familiar landscape for some."

Kilgore said one positive about the flood was that the area was already organized for a response due to having its experience after Hurricane Floyd.

"We didn't have to start at zero this time," he said. "It's really a witness to what preparedness can do."

Kilgore estimated that SADRC will handle at least 100 to 150 cases during the recovery, covering everything from major home repairs to paying electric bills.

Adams was arranging logistics for two volunteer work crews this summer, but said it was too early to take in regular volunteers. Once the committee finds a construction coordinator, home repairs will move forward.

"Our job now is finding people in need," Adams said.


Related Topics:

Solutions for flood insurance

How US flood insurance works

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More links on Flooding

 

Related Links:

Catholic Charities - Diocese of Paterson, NJ

Bound Brook Presbyterian Church

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